North Korea calls for Pompeo to be dropped from talks; tests tactical weapon

By Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Thursday it no longer wanted to deal with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and said he should be replaced in talks by someone more mature, hours after it announced its first weapons test since nuclear talks broke down.

The North’s official KCNA news agency quoted senior foreign ministry official Kwon Jong Gun as warning that no one could predict the situation on the Korean peninsula if the United States did not abandon the “root cause” that compelled North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

The statement came shortly after North Korea announced that leader Kim Jong Un had overseen the testing of a new tactical guided weapon, which KCNA said has a “peculiar mode of guiding flight” and “a powerful warhead.”

It was the North’s first weapon test since talks in Vietnam between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in late February broke down over conflicting demands by North Korea for sanctions relief and by the United States for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

KCNA gave no details on the weapon that was tested on Wednesday but “tactical” implied a short-range weapon rather than the long-range ballistic missiles that have been seen as a threat to the United States.

KCNA quoted Kwon, who is in charge of U.S. affairs, as saying the Vietnam summit, the second between the two leaders, showed that talks could go wrong “whenever Pompeo pokes his nose in.”

“I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled,” Kwon said.

“Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the United States, I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but other person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”

A spokeswoman for the State Department said it was aware of the report about Pompeo and added: “The United States remains ready to engage North Korea in a constructive negotiation.”

Kwon did not elaborate on why North Korea felt compelled to develop nuclear weapons, but North Korea has long spoken of the need to defend itself from what it sees as U.S. aggression.

Kim said last week said the breakdown in talks risked reviving tensions and he gave a year-end deadline for the United States to change its attitude.

Despite the failure of the Vietnam summit, Trump has stressed his good relationship with Kim.

Kwon also said the two leaders were on good terms, even as he castigated Pompeo for “fabricated” stories as part of a “publicity stunt.” He did not elaborate.

Kwon said Pompeo had made “reckless remarks hurting the dignity of our supreme leadership,” apparently referring to him agreeing to the characterization of Kim as a “tyrant” at a U.S. congressional hearing last week.

‘USEFUL REMINDER’

Earlier, Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the newly tested weapon was likely a short-range cruise missile that could be launched from the ground, sea and air.

Kim oversaw the test of an unidentified tactical weapon in November.

Experts said in November Kim wanted to shift the mainstay of the North’s conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.

The young leader said last April that he would stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles because the nuclear capabilities of North Korea, which has tested nuclear devices six times, had been verified.

“This does serve as a useful reminder of one critical fact: Chairman Kim Jong Un never promised to stop testing all weapons in his military arsenal, just nuclear weapons and ICBMs that have the potential to hit the U.S. homeland,” said Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Center for the National Interest.

A U.S. official said that, according initial information, U.S. forces did not detect a missile launch from North Korea. Checks were underway, said the official.

Referring to the test, a White House official said: “We are aware of the report and have no further comment.”

South Korea’s presidential Blue House declined to comment on the test, referring questions to the defense ministry. It said it was analyzing the nature of the weapon and North Korea’s intentions.

Kim’s visit to the testing site came after he visited the North Korean Air and Anti-aircraft Force on Tuesday, according to KCNA.

Kyungnam University’s Kim Dong-yub said the latest test appeared to partly be a message to the United States that North Korea would not bow to sanctions.

“It’s also an internal message to the North Korean people and to the military” to instill trust in their own security by reinforcing conventional weapons, he said.

Satellite images from last week showed movement at Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear site, that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States said on Tuesday.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in a Bloomberg News interview on Wednesday the United States needed to see “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons” before a third summit between Trump and Kim.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee, Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Idrees Ali, Jeff Mason and Phillip Stewart in WASHINGTON; Editing by Sandra Maler, Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Jonathan Oatis)

Satellite images may show reprocessing activity at North Korea nuclear site: U.S. researchers

A view of what researchers of Beyond Parallel, a CSIS project, describe as specialized rail cars at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, in this commercial satellite image taken April 12, 2019 and released April 16, 2019. CSIS/Beyond Parallel/DigitalGlobe 2019 via REUTERS

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Satellite images from last week show movement at North Korea’s main nuclear site that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, a U.S. think tank said on Tuesday.

Any new reprocessing activity would underscore the failure of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in late February to make progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report that satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site from April 12 showed five specialized railcars near its Uranium Enrichment Facility and Radiochemistry Laboratory.

It said their movement could indicate the transfer of radioactive material.

“In the past, these specialized railcars appear to have been associated with the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns.” the report said. “The current activity, along with their configurations, does not rule out their possible involvement in such activity, either before or after a reprocessing campaign.”

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on intelligence matters, but a source familiar with U.S. government assessments said that while U.S. experts thought the movements could possibly be related to reprocessing, they were doubtful it was significant nuclear activity.

Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank, said that if reprocessing was taking place, it would be a significant given U.S.-North Korean talks in the past year and the failure to reach an agreement on the future of Yongbyon in Hanoi.

“Because there wasn’t an agreement with North Korea on Yongbyon, it would be interesting timing if they were to have started something so quickly after Hanoi,” she said.

Trump has met Kim twice in the past year to try to persuade him to abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States, but progress so far has been scant.

The Hanoi talks collapsed after Trump proposed a “big deal” in which sanctions on North Korea would be lifted if it handed over all its nuclear weapons and fissile material to the United States. He rejected partial denuclearization steps offered by Kim, which included an offer to dismantle Yongbyon.

Although Kim has maintained a freeze in missile and nuclear tests since 2017, U.S. officials say North Korea has continued to produce fissile material that can be processed for use in bombs.

Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink the test freeze unless Washington made concessions.

Last week, Kim said the Hanoi breakdown raised the risks of reviving tensions, adding that he was only interested in meeting Trump again if the United States came with the right attitude.

Kim said he would wait “till the end of this year” for the United States to decide to be more flexible. On Monday, Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brushed aside this demand with Pompeo saying Kim should keep his promise to give up his nuclear weapons before then.

Town said any new reprocessing work at Yongbyon would emphasize the importance of the facility in North Korea’s nuclear program.

“It would underscore that it is an active facility that does increase North Korea’s fissile material stocks to increase its arsenal.”

A study by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation released ahead of the Hanoi summit said North Korea had continued to produce bomb fuel in 2018 and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal.

Experts have estimated the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal at anywhere between 20 and 60 warheads.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)

Treaty’s end would give U.S., Russia impetus to make more nukes: study

FILE PHOTO - National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The demise of the only U.S.-Russia arms control pact limiting deployed nuclear weapons would make it harder for each to gauge the other’s intentions, giving both incentives to expand their arsenals, according to a study released on Monday.

The expiration of the New START accord also may undermine faith in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls on nuclear states such as the United States and Russia to work toward nuclear disarmament, as well as influence China’s nuclear posture, historically one of restraint.

The study, produced by the CNA Corp non-profit research group, is the most comprehensive public examination to date of the consequences of New START’s demise. It argues for extending the 2011 treaty, which expires in February 2021 but can be extended for five years if both sides agree.

The Trump administration is deliberating whether to extend the pact, which President Donald Trump has reviled as a bad deal and his national security adviser, John Bolton, has long opposed. Russia has said it is prepared to extend New START but wants to discuss what it regards as U.S. violations first.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the administration’s deliberations.

Trump has said Washington will withdraw from another arms pact, the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, this summer unless Moscow ends its alleged violations, compounding tense ties. Russia denies violating the INF treaty.

The New START treaty required the United States and Russia to cut their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550, the lowest level in decades, and limit delivery systems – land- and submarine-based missiles and nuclear-capable bombers.

It also includes extensive transparency measures requiring each side to allow the other to carry out 10 inspections of strategic nuclear bases each year; give 48 hours notice before new missiles covered by the treaty leave their factories; and provide notifications before ballistic missile launches.

Both sides must also exchange data declaring their deployed strategic nuclear warheads, delivery vehicles and launchers, as well as breakdowns of how many of each are located at individual bases.

All of that would end if the treaty expires.

“Neither country would have the same degree of confidence in its ability to assess the other’s precise warhead levels,” CNA’s Vince Manzo wrote in the study. “Worst-case planning is also more likely as a result.

“Increased opacity between U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces would unfold within the broader context of growing mistrust and diverging perceptions about strategy, intentions, and perceptions,” he added.

Without the data, the United States would have to reassign its overworked satellites, possibly devoting more surveillance to Russia and less to China, Iran and North Korea.

Another casualty of the treaty’s expiration could be global nonproliferation, making non-nuclear states doubt the United States and Russia will keep working toward nuclear disarmament under the NPT, the study said.

While it was impossible to predict how China – estimated to have about 280 nuclear warheads – would react to New START’s expiry, the study cites factors that could make Beijing expand its capability.

Without a treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, China could overestimate their arsenals. Unconstrained U.S. and Russian forces could also strengthen voices in China that view a large arsenal as symbolically important, as well as those already advocating for more nuclear weapons.

The study recommends steps for the United States and Russia to mitigate the risks from the treaty’s expiration, including voluntarily sticking to its limits and continuing to exchange data. It also recommends Washington propose annual exchanges of nuclear weapons information and dialogue with Beijing.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Dan Grebler)

Don’t take this North Korea guidebook with you, warns publisher

The North Korea Petit Fute touristic guide book is displayed during an interview with Reuters in Paris, France, March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

By John Irish and Noemie Olive

PARIS (Reuters) – A French publisher has produced a rare guide to North Korea, highlighting its history, cultural wealth and beautiful landscapes but advising tourists not to take the politically sensitive book with them.

Tourism is one of the few remaining reliable sources of foreign income for North Korea after the U.N. imposed sanctions targeting 90 percent of its $3 billion annual exports including commodities, textiles and seafood.

Dominique Auzias, co-founder of the Petit Fute French touristic guide book, poses during an interview with Reuters for the launching of their North Korea guide book in Paris, France, March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Dominique Auzias, co-founder of the Petit Fute French touristic guide book, poses during an interview with Reuters for the launching of their North Korea guide book in Paris, France, March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Tensions over North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles spiked on the Korean peninsula last year and there were fears of a U.S. military response to North Korea’s threat to develop a weapon capable of hitting the United States.

“There are a lot of people that are interested in this country be it for nuclear and military reasons, but also economically so … it’s important to provide information,” said Dominique Auzias, president of the Petit Fute, which publishes some 800 guides.

“As it’s a country that’s closed and forbidden everybody dreams of going there,” he said.

Some 400 French tourists visit the country each year with trips costing about 2,000 euros ($2,267).

The reclusive communist state has no official diplomatic relations with France.

Talks in June last year between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provided a detente even if in recent weeks tensions have once again flared.

North Korean authorities would probably confiscate the printed edition given some of the material, Auzias said.

“You don’t go for adventure, but to discover,” he said.

The guide, which took three years to put together, touches little on where to stay or eat because accessing the country as a tourist can only be done through specific travel agents who determine what visitors see.

In some cases, however, they respond to requests and Auzias said the guide helps people decide what they would like to see.

It makes clear it is imperative to stick to the country’s strict rules or face dire consequences as American student Otto Warmbier did in 2016 when he was sentenced to 15 years of forced labor for trying to steal a propaganda poster in his hotel.

He was returned to the United States in a coma 17 months later, and died shortly after. A coroner said he died from lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.

“The first time I went 10-12 years ago I was proud because I was one of the rare French citizens to get in … but my second moment of happiness was about three weeks later when I left because it was suffocating and mind-boggling,” Auzias said.

(Reporting by John Irish and Noemeie Olive; Editing by Bate Felix and Alexandra Hudson)

Pakistan tells China of ‘deteriorating situation’ in Indian Kashmir

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attend a meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, March 19, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/Pool via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday of the “rapidly deteriorating situation” and rights violations in Indian Kashmir, and called for India to look again at its policies there.

India launched an air strike on a militant camp inside Pakistan last month following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir.

The Feb. 14 attack that killed at least 40 paramilitary police was the deadliest in Kashmir’s 30-year-long insurgency, escalating tension between the neighbors, and the subsequent air strike had heightened fears that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could slide into a fourth war.

Speaking in Beijing standing alongside the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, Qureshi said his country appreciated the role China played once again “in standing by Pakistan in these difficult times”.

“I also briefed the foreign minister on the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Indian side of Kashmir, intensification of human rights violations, especially after Pulwama,” he said, referring to where the attack took place.”This is a concern because that leads to a reaction and that reaction at times creates tensions in the region which must be avoided,” Qureshi added.

“I think there’s a need for a new assessment on how the situation on the Indian side of Kashmir should be handled by the Indians. There are now voices within India that are questioning the efficacy of the policy that they’ve followed for the last so many years,” he said, without elaborating.

Wang, who is also China’s foreign minister, said China has always believed that peace and stability in South Asia is in the joint interests of countries in the region and is what the international community wishes.

“China appreciates Pakistan’s constructive efforts to ease the situation and calls on Pakistan and India to continue to exercise restraint and resolve the differences that exist via dialogue and peaceful means.”

The sparring after the Pulwama attack had threatened to spiral out of control and only interventions by U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, headed off a bigger conflict, five sources familiar with the events have told Reuters.

At one stage, India threatened to fire at least six missiles at Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its own missile strikes “three times over”, said Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.

A Pakistani minister said China and the United Arab Emirates also intervened to lessen tension between the South Asian neighbors.

In a faxed statement to Reuters late on Monday, responding to a question on China’s role in reining in the crisis, its foreign ministry said peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and India was in everyone’s interest.

“As a friendly neighbor of both India and Pakistan, China pro-actively promoted peace talks and played a constructive role in easing the tense situation,” it said.

“Some other countries also made positive efforts in this regard,” the ministry added.

China is willing to work with the international community to continue to encourage the neighbors to meet each other half way and use dialogue and peaceful means to resolve differences, it said, without elaborating.

China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather” friends, but China has also been trying to improve ties with New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in China last year agreeing to reset relations, and Xi is expected to visit India sometime this year, diplomatic sources say.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore)

Trump lands in Vietnam for second summit with North Korea’s Kim

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at Noi Bai Airport for the US-DPRK summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kham/Po

By Jeff Mason and Khanh Vu

HANOI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday for their second summit in less than a year, at which the U.S. side will urge tangible steps by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Trump flew into Hanoi on Air Force One, touching down just before 9 p.m. (1400 GMT).

“Just arrived in Vietnam,” he wrote in a Twitter post. “Thank you to all of the people for the great reception in Hanoi. Tremendous crowds, and so much love!”

Kim arrived by train early in the day after a three-day, 3,000-km (1,850-mile) journey from his capital, Pyongyang, through China. He completed the last stretch from a border station to Hanoi by car.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (C) waves upon his arrival at the border town with China in Dong Dang, Vietnam, February 26, 2019. Nhan Sang/VNA via REUTERS

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (C) waves upon his arrival at the border town with China in Dong Dang, Vietnam, February 26, 2019. Nhan Sang/VNA via REUTERS

The two leaders, who seemed to strike up a surprisingly warm relationship at their first summit in Singapore last June, will meet for a brief one-on-one conversation on Wednesday evening, followed by a dinner, at which they will each be accompanied by two guests and interpreters, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.

They will meet again on Thursday, she said.

Their talks come eight months after the historic summit in Singapore, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

While much of that first meeting was about breaking the ice after decades of bitter animosity between their two countries, this time there will be pressure to move beyond a vaguely worded commitment by Kim to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Trump’s critics at home have warned him against cutting a deal that would do little to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, urging specific, verifiable North Korean action to abandon the nuclear weapons that threaten the United States.

In return, Kim would expect significant U.S. concessions such as relief from punishing sanctions and a declaration that the 1950-53 Korean War is at last formally over.

Trump, landing in darkness, waved as he disembarked Air Force One and was met by senior Vietnamese and U.S. officials. His motorcade passed crowds waving the flags of Vietnam, the United States and North Korea on its way to the JW Marriott Hotel, his accommodation for the two-day summit.

Earlier, Vietnamese officials greeted Kim at the station in Dong Dang town after he crossed the border from China by train. He got a red-carpet welcome with honor guard, military band and fluttering North Korean and Vietnamese flags.

Kim was accompanied by his sister, Kim Yo Jong, an important aide.

About a dozen bodyguards briefly ran alongside his limousine as he began the two-hour journey to Hanoi, smiling and waving to children lining the route.

Roads were closed with security forces in armored personnel carriers guarding the route to Hanoi’s Melia hotel where Kim is staying.

Vietnamese authorities have yet to announce where Kim and Trump will meet.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also arrived on Tuesday and met Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh for talks.

‘TREMENDOUS’

Trump said before leaving Washington it would be “a very tremendous summit” and stressed the benefits to North Korea if it gave up its nuclear weapons.

“With complete Denuclearization, North Korea will rapidly become an Economic Powerhouse. Without it, just more of the same. Chairman Kim will make a wise decision!” he said.

In a speech on Sunday, however, Trump appeared to play down the possibility of a major breakthrough, saying he would be happy as long as North Korea maintained its pause on weapons testing.

“I’m not in a rush,” he said. “I just don’t want testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy.”

North Korea has not conducted a nuclear or missile test since 2017, but analysts say the two leaders have to move beyond summit symbolism.

“The most basic yet urgent task is to come to a shared understanding of what denuclearization would entail,” said Gi-Wook Shin, director of Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center.

“The ambiguity and obscurity of the term ‘denuclearization’ only exacerbates the skepticism about both the U.S. and North Korean commitments to denuclearization.”

While the United States is demanding North Korea give up all of its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea wants to see the removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella for South Korea.

Trump’s departure from Washington comes at a time of increased pressure at home, and he is keen to show progress on a foreign policy issue that has confounded multiple predecessors.

Some analysts fear this may lead him to pull his punches.

“The main concern is whether the president, besieged by domestic distractions, will give away too much, and take a bad deal that leaves the United States less secure,” said Victor Cha, a former White House official who took part in past North Korea negotiations under previous Republican administrations.

While Trump is in Hanoi, his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, is testifying before U.S. congressional committees, with the president’s business practices the main focus.

Anticipation has also been rising about the impending release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, although a senior U.S. Justice Department official said on Friday it would not come this week.

A South Korean presidential spokesman told reporters in Seoul the two sides might be able to agree to a formal end of the Korean War, which was concluded with an armistice not a peace treaty, a move North Korea has long sought.

Protesters in Seoul tore up photographs of Kim and threw them to the ground to highlight their dismay that North Korea’s grim human rights record was not expected to figure in talks.

Amnesty International said Trump had disregarded human rights to gain favor with Kim.

“His silence in the face of relentless and grave human rights violations has been deafening,” it said.

(For live coverage of the summit, click: ); Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON, https://www.reuters.com/live/north-koreaMai Nguyen, Hyonhee Shin, Josh Smith and Ebrahim Harris in HANOI, Joyce Lee in SEOUL; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Clarence Fernandez and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S., North Korea to seek understanding on denuclearization at summit

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and North Korea will seek a common understanding of what denuclearization means when President Donald Trump presses Kim Jong Un next week to give up all of the North’s nuclear weapons, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

Trump and Kim are set to meet in Vietnam for their second summit in an effort to thaw relations between the former foes and reduce one of the world’s biggest nuclear threats.

U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for the meeting, and Trump has made clear he does not expect this one to be his last with Kim, a dictator he once derided as “little rocket man” but now considers a partner with whom he works well.

Critics have said Trump gave Kim too much simply by meeting with him in Singapore last year. That criticism may be levied again for the Vietnam summit.

But the U.S. officials said the United States remained focused on getting the North Korean leader to denuclearize, even if he had not made that decision himself so far.

“I don’t know if North Korea has made the choice yet to denuclearize, but the reason why we’re engaged in this is because we believe there is a possibility,” one official said.

The two sides have not agreed previously on what denuclearization means.

Kim agreed in Singapore to work towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which could be taken to include removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella for South Korea and nuclear-capable forces, while the United States has been demanding that North Korea give up all of its nuclear and missile programs.

“It is ultimately about the denuclearization of North Korea. That was what was agreed between the two sides and that is the overriding goal that President Trump is seeking to achieve with this summit. This is an important step towards that ultimate goal,” the official said.

He said the United States would press for a freeze on all weapons of mass destruction and missile programs and a “roadmap” to set expectations for negotiations going forward.

The two sides are not discussing the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea, however. The United States keeps some 28,500 troops in South Korea.

Asked whether Trump was open to withdrawing all U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula for a peace treaty that would formally end the war, a second official said that was “not the subject of discussions.”

The officials noted that punishing U.S. sanctions would remain in place to give North Korea an incentive to move.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Putin to U.S.: I’m ready for another Cuban Missile crisis if you want one

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly, including the State Duma parliamentarians, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and other high-ranking officials, in Moscow, Russia February 20, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia is militarily ready for a Cuban Missile-style crisis if the United States is foolish enough to want one and that his country currently has the edge when it comes to a first nuclear strike.

The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in 1962 when Moscow responded to a U.S. missile deployment in Turkey by sending ballistic missiles to Cuba, sparking a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

More than five decades on, tensions are rising again over Russian fears that the United States might deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe as a landmark Cold war-era arms control treaty unravels.

Putin’s comments, made to Russian media late on Wednesday, follow his warning that Moscow will match any U.S. move to deploy new missiles closer to Russia by stationing its own missiles closer to the United States or by deploying faster missiles or both.

Putin fleshed out his warning in detail for the first time, saying Russia could deploy hypersonic missiles on ships and submarines which could lurk outside U.S. territorial waters if Washington now moved to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.

“(We’re talking about) naval delivery vehicles: submarines or surface ships. And we can put them, given the speed and range (of our missiles)… in neutral waters. Plus they are not stationary, they move and they will have to find them,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript.

“You work it out. Mach nine (the speed of the missiles) and over 1,000 km (their range).”

TREATY VIOLATIONS

The U.S. State Department dismissed Putin’s earlier warning as propaganda, saying it was designed to divert attention from what Washington alleges are Moscow’s violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The pact, which banned Russia and the United States from stationing short- and intermediate-range, land-based missiles in Europe, is in its death throes, raising the prospect of a new arms race between Washington and Moscow.

Putin has said he does not want an arms race with the United States, but that he would have no choice but to act if Washington deployed new missiles in Europe, some of which he says would be able to strike Moscow within 10-12 minutes.

Putin said his naval response to such a move would mean Russia could strike the United States faster than U.S. missiles deployed in Europe could hit Moscow because the flight time would be shorter.

“It (the calculation) would not be in their favor, at least as things stand today. That’s for sure.” said Putin.

Relations between Moscow and Washington were strained, he added, but the tensions were not comparable to those of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“They (the tensions) are not a reason to ratchet up confrontation to the levels of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. In any case that’s not what we want,” said Putin. “If someone wants that, well OK they are welcome. I have set out today what that would mean. Let them count (the missile flight times).”

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

North Korea may have made more nuclear bombs, but threat reduced: study

FILE PHOTO - People carry flags in front of statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea has continued to produce bomb fuel while in denuclearization talks with the United States and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal, according to a study released just weeks before a planned second summit between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump.

However, the country’s freeze in nuclear and missile testing since 2017 mean that North Korea’s weapons program probably poses less of a threat than it did at the end of that year, the report by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation found.

Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico who is now at Stanford and was one of the report’s authors, told Reuters analysis of satellite imagery showed North Korea’s production of bomb fuel continued in 2018.

He said spent fuel generated from operation of the 5 megawatt reactor at its main nuclear plant at Yongbyon from 2016-18 appeared to have been reprocessed starting in May and would have produced an estimated 5-8 kg of weapons-grade plutonium.

This combined with production of perhaps 150 kg of highly enriched uranium may have allowed North Korea to increase the number of weapons in its arsenal by between five and seven, the Stanford report said.

Hecker’s team had estimated the size of North Korea’s arsenal in 2017 at 30, bringing a possible current total of 37 weapons. U.S. intelligence is not certain how many nuclear warheads North Korea has. Last year, the Defense Intelligence Agency was at the high end with an estimate of about 50 nuclear warheads, while analysts have given a range of 20-60.

The Stanford report said that while North Korea was likely to have continued work on warhead miniaturization and to ensure they can stand up to delivery via intercontinental ballistic missiles, the halt in testing greatly limited its ability to make such improvements.

“They have continued the machinery to turn out plutonium and highly enriched uranium,” Hecker said, “but it also depends on weaponization – the design, build and test and then the delivery.

“When they ended missile testing, those things rolled backwards. So when I look at the whole spectrum, to me North Korea … is less dangerous today than it was at the end of 2017, in spite of the fact that they may have made another five to seven weapons worth of nuclear material.”

The Stanford experts said it was their assessment that “North Korea cannot deliver a nuclear warhead with any measure of confidence to the U.S. mainland,” although Hecker said its nuclear weapons were a real threat to Japan and South Korea.

Hecker said it was understandable that North Korea should have continued its weapons work, given that it had reached no specific agreement in the latest talks with the United States to stop that work.

U.S. Secretary State Mike Pompeo told Congress in July that North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs in spite of its pledge to denuclearize, even as he argued – as he has continued to do – that the Trump administration was making progress in talks with Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged during an unprecedented first summit with Trump last June to work towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

There has been little concrete progress since, but in September, Kim expressed willingness to take steps, including the permanent dismantlement of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, in return for “corresponding measures” by the United States.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun held three days of talks in Pyongyang last week to prepare for a second Trump-Kim summit due to be held in Hanoi on Feb. 27 and 28. He said before the talks they would include discussion of corresponding steps North Korea has demanded.

Trump described those talks as “very productive” but the State Department has offered no sign of progress and Biegun and his counterpart have agreed to meet again before the summit.

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)